Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 09, 2021

Your Numbers

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Your cholesterol levels tell your doctor about the fats in your blood. Unhealthy levels are linked to hardening of the arteries, which can cause heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. Your numbers include “bad” (LDL) and “good” (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides, a common fat in your body. If you understand where your numbers are and what may affect them, you can do some things to help manage them.

You Don’t Get Tested

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Unhealthy cholesterol numbers don’t typically cause any symptoms, so it’s important to get them checked. If you find out there’s a problem, diet, lifestyle changes, and medication can help. After age 20, your doctor will want to do a simple blood test every 4 to 6 years to make sure they’re in the healthy range. If your levels are off, your doctor will keep a close eye on them to see if you need treatment.

You Skip Your Workouts

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Regular exercise is one of the best ways to control your cholesterol. You don’t have to run a marathon -- 40 minutes of walking, swimming, cycling, or dancing 3 or 4 times a week will do the trick. If you’re short on time, you can break it into 10-minute increments throughout the day.  Resistance training -- pushups, pullups, weights -- may help, too.

You Park Yourself

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Sitting too long can be linked to obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. It lowers “good” cholesterol, which helps get rid of the bad stuff, and raises triglyceride levels. This is true even if you exercise regularly. If you work at a desk, try to get up and move around every 30 minutes, or think about using a standing desk.  

You Smoke

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It lowers your “good” cholesterol levels, which means you keep more of the bad stuff. And it’s linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Quitting can make your cholesterol levels better and help protect your arteries. If you don’t smoke, do your best to stay away from secondhand smoke.

You Ignore Your Weight

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Carrying too many pounds, especially around your belly, can raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the good kind (HDL). But lose just 10% of your weight, and you could really help your numbers. Talk to your doctor about the best diet and exercise program to help you lose weight. 

You Eat a Lot of Saturated Fat

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This comes from beef, pork, lamb, and full-fat dairy like butter, cream, milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as tropical oils like palm and coconut. All those things can raise your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. It can help to trim visible fat from meats and go with skim milk and low-fat yogurt. If your LDL is high, you shouldn’t get more than 6% of your calories from saturated fat.

You Eat a Lot of Trans Fat

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Sometimes called “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils, you find them in fried foods, pastries, pizza dough, doughnuts, muffins, cookies, crackers, and many prepackaged foods. They raise your bad cholesterol levels and lower the good stuff. Check food labels to limit trans fats. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish, and nuts.

You Cut Out all Fats

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They’re not all bad. Replace saturated and trans fats with healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. You’ll find those fats in trout, salmon, herring, avocados, olives, walnuts, and liquid vegetable oils like safflower, canola, sunflower, and olive oil. But make sure no more than 30% of your daily calories come from any kind of fat.

You Forget About Fiber

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There are 2 types: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which doesn’t. Both are good for your heart health, but soluble fiber in particular helps lower your LDL levels. Add it to your diet with a bowl of oatmeal in the morning or with oat bran, fruits, beans, lentils, or vegetables.

You Drink Too Much

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Overdoing it with alcohol can cause unhealthy cholesterol numbers. In particular, it can raise the level of fats in your blood. Men should have no more than two drinks per day, and women one. If you keep to that, you also might boost your HDL or “good” cholesterol numbers.

You Ignore Other Conditions

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It’s important to understand and treat any medical issues linked to bad cholesterol numbers like high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and hypothyroidism. If you have one of those conditions and manage it well, you may help your numbers, too.

You Skip Your Medication Sometimes

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Follow your doctor’s directions about any prescriptions. If you do forget to take your medicine, don’t try to “make up” doses by taking more the next time. It may not work the way it’s supposed to, or it may make you dizzy or sick. Make sure to tell your doctor about any drugs you already take.  Some drugs can cause problems if they’re taken at the same time as other meds.

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American Heart Association: “HDL (Good), LDL (Bad) Cholesterol and Triglycerides,” “About Cholesterol,” “How To Get Your Cholesterol Tested,” “Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia),” “Cholesterol Medications,” “The Skinny on Fats.”

European Heart Journal: “Replacing sitting time with standing or stepping: associations with cardio-metabolic risk biomarkers.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “Abdominal fat and what to do about it,” “Fats and Cholesterol.”

Lipids in Health and Disease: “Physical activity, sedentary behavior time and lipid levels in the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg study.”

Mayo Clinic: “To track how much fat I eat each day, should I focus on grams, calories or percentages?” “Top 5 lifestyle changes to improve your cholesterol,” “Cholesterol: Top foods to improve your numbers.”

NHS Choices: “High cholesterol - Prevention,” “High cholesterol - Causes.”

Revista Espanola de Cardiologia: “Sedentary Lifestyle and Its Relation to Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Insulin Resistance and Inflammatory Profile.”

FDA: “Medical Devices: Cholesterol.”